Debuting as an early career researcher

I have been dating the Academy for a few years now and it is very easy to think of graduating with a PhD as the equivalent of wedding bells. I got to buy a new dress and shoes, wear an elaborate robe and floppy hat — it must be a wedding!?! It is easy to get discouraged when the knot doesn’t get tied with a testimonial.

Debutantes with matron, Eastern Suburbs Masonic Ball: State Library of NSW

Debutantes with matron, Eastern Suburbs Masonic Ball: State Library of NSW

But I think that graduating a PhD is a bit more like a debutante ball. You get to wear an elaborate outfit and are introduced to society as an expert in your field.

Its funny how getting that little “Dr” makes such a lot of difference to how you are perceived. The letters seem to have an innate authority. While I have been doing sessional tutoring and lecturing throughout my PhD, it was not until I was awarded my degree that things started to happen.

Things started to happen in very interesting ways, convincing me that dating the Academy through research assistant and sessional work can build a brand and a CV in a way that those who win the coveted PhD>Post-doc>Tenure track don’t necessarily get. My pathway to the Academy is much scarier financially, but it means building confidence and negotiation skills that are quite valuable. It also means that if I want to break-up with the Academy, I have a raft of transferable skills.

1. I was asked to apply my pre-PhD skill set (curriculum consultation) to the academic realm.

I am currently working as a project officer and curriculum consultant for the accreditation of two degrees. I basically audit the curriculum. Through this current project, my name has become known to the executive team, and through my results my name has become known to all course convenors. I have the advantage of being across what is taught in two degrees, making my knowledge a valuable asset at a time when there is executive change. After presenting my findings, my expertise is even more in demand and team leaders are beginning to suggest they need to invest more time in my skills and making noises about longer term contracts (I have learned to take these with a grain of salt, but they build opportunity and confidence).

This is a great job for my CV because it shows my ability to synthesise large amounts of information and work confidently and professionally with all stakeholders. It also means that the little RA sitting at the back of executive meetings taking notes is gaining an insight into the running of a university in a way *traditional track* early career researchers might not become exposed to for many years. This is valuable for long term career and job application formulation information.

2. I joined a special interest group (SIG).

One of the biggest conundrums about finishing a PhD is losing access to the library. If you lose access to the library, you lose unpaid access to journals which can severely stunt your publishing ability.

At my university, if I joined and actively participated in a SIG, I could apply to be an adjunct and keep my library privileges. This also works as a sessional staff member, but access could be lost over summer breaks when the most writing time is available.

Joining a SIG meant sacrificing 2 hours per fortnight that I could be being paid on my other project, but I think it has paid off. Through the SIG I met academics on an research level, not just structural and teaching level. I had no idea what people were talking and theorising about for a lot of the time (I’m learning…always learning), but eventually I saw an opportunity.

It was about 9 months into my SIG membership and the co-ordinators invited along an online librarian to talk about the importance of engaging in the online world. Many academics at my university are interested in the online world but are reluctant to engage for various reasons. I offered to help out. Now I manage a blog for the SIG and coach academic use of social media.

This blog does a couple of things for my CV. It shows that I know how to collaborate and it also shows I have a good working relationship with well established senior academics. It also shows I can use initiative.

I was also very upfront about what I wanted from the SIG. I wanted mentorship and I wanted opportunities to publish with senior academics. Both of these requests are slowly coming into fruition. I email one senior academic regularly, pushing my intellectual boundaries. Both SIG coordinators freely provide advice and opportunity for me to work towards career advancement by formulating papers with them.

I think being a sessional/casual early career researcher has helped me more *business-minded* about my career. I don’t know what it is like to do the traditional route, so I’m done being jealous of it. Kudos to those that got it, but I’m not sure how long the traditional track is going to stick around. Not worth crying over an archaic model. Time to move forward.

What are your experiences with sessional and research assistant work and achieving tenure?


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